In which I get closer to Shermer’s word count


Ok so now Shermer’s “response” is online, so I can look at a couple of other details I omitted because I didn’t want to retype the whole damn thing.

By the way I get to respond in the next issue. I’m going to do that. I’ll be briefer, and more polite, and I won’t pretend to think anyone is going to “come for me.”

When self-proclaimed secular feminists attacked Richard Dawkins for a seemingly innocent response to an equally innocent admonishment to guys by Rebecca Watson (the founder of Skepchicks) that it isn’t cool to hit on women in elevators, this erupted into what came to be known as “Elevator­gate.” I didn’t speak out because I figured that an intellect as formidable as Richard Dawkins’s did not need my comparatively modest brainpower in support.

When these same self-described secular feminists went after Sam Harris for a commentary supporting racial profiling in the search for terrorists, again I didn’t speak out.

One, I wonder why he keeps saying “self-proclaimed/self-described secular feminists” that way. I don’t “proclaim” myself that, and I’m not sure I know anyone who does. I do talk about secularism a lot, and of course I talk about feminism a lot. So? Why does Shermer seem to be holding both at arm’s length as if they smelled?

Two, no they didn’t. The same people didn’t do both. We’re not an army, we don’t march in unison. I haven’t said anything about Sam Harris since I reviewed The Moral Landscape for The Philosophers’ Magazine. I don’t find him very interesting.

But perhaps I should have spoken out, because now the inquisition has been turned on me, by none other than one of the leading self-proclaimed secular feminists whose work has heretofore been important in the moral progress of our movement. I have already responded to this charge against me elsewhere,* so I will only briefly summarize it here. Instead of allowing my inquisitors to force me into the position of defending myself (I still believe in the judicial principle of innocence until proven guilty), I shall use this incident to make the case for moral progress.

Could outraged vanity make itself any more apparent? (I said I was going to be more polite in the magazine. I didn’t say I would be more polite here.) The inquisition forsooth. This is self-importance at work: it can’t be that I simply criticised something he did actually say, no, because he is so important, therefore my audacity in criticising becomes an inquisition. And note “whose work has heretofore been important” – meaning, presumably, that it stopped being important when and because I lurched off the Path of Importance and inquisitioned him instead. And then note the nonsense about forcing him into defending himself, and the courtroom nonsense. Look on this example, oh ye mighty, and despair – or don’t despair, but do resolve never to let vanity get that kind of grip on you.

As for why the sex ratio isn’t perfectly fifty-fifty, Hall noted: “I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.”

You don’t say so!

Very few people actually think every sphere of human endeavor has to have exactly equal numbers of women and men. That’s a straw man. But we haven’t yet finished that little job of ensuring there are no preventable obstacles, so it’s way way way too early to let the chips fall any old how. The kind of thing that Shermer said, which is a kind of thing that lots of people say, is one of those preventable – or at least minimizable – obstacles. I’m trying to do my tiny bit to prevent that kind. That’s not an evil thing to do. Shermer seems to think it is, but he’s wrong.

Comments

  1. screechymonkey says

    Would it be impolite for your magazine reply to refer to him as “self-proclaimed skeptic Michael Shermer”?

  2. edithkeeler says

    A small point but I’ve never gotten the “self-proclaimed” description used as some kind of implicit slam. I’m a self-proclaimed secular feminist because it accurately describes my worldview and, well, who the heck else is going to “proclaim” me one otherwise? It’s not a professional qualification you need to have certification for because you can call yourself one. It’s just a little linguistic trick to show disdain for someone without coming out and saying so, and thus a weird, cheap shot.

    Shermer got me into organised skepticism in that reading Why people Believe Weird Things encouraged me to get involved and I enjoyed watching him demolish John Lennox in a debate about god but anything to do with politics or social issues and I regretfully don’t trust him anymore. (Not just because of this, the political sections of his last book were pretty dire on a critical thinking level)

  3. Jean says

    I wonder if Shermer would have had such a vigorous set of replies if the mention that his remark was sexist had come from a man.

  4. bcmystery says

    Seems to me being able to admit when you’ve made a mistake and then to learn from it is a crucial aspect of being rational and a skeptic. Maybe Shermer forgot that part. :p

  5. besomyka says

    Is Shermer trying to write a parody. If I couldn’t imagine his smile(and it’s such a niche subject), I’d have thought it was from The Onion. It’s like he’s trying to be the sort of person I hoped he wasn’t.

  6. arthur says

    Michael Shermer’s original statement “it’s a guy thing” sounded sexist in any context. There’s no wriggling out of that one. People were right to highlight it and Shermer needed to explain himself.

    Shermer does, however, have a point in objecting to the sentiment attributed to him, “too stupid to do nontheism” and that “unbelieving in God is thinky work and women don’t do thinky”. I remember reading that at the time and cringing at what seemed like a misrepresentation.

    I love FTB and have been following of B&W daily for years, but the blogging fashion of casually applying additional motives to other people’s writing, often with a heavy dose of sarcasm, does omit the odd foul smell on occasion.

    That said, Shermer’s nazi allusions are a disgrace. Unreasonable. Irrational.

  7. fantysq (a Radical Feminist and a Militant Atheist) says

    I didn’t speak out because I figured that an intellect as formidable as Richard Dawkins’s did not need my comparatively modest brainpower in support.

    I can’t believe he wrote this with a straight face.

  8. says

    1. People in a position of privilege aren’t necessarily the best judges of when obstacles have in fact been removed.

    2. How, exactly, was Dawkins’ condescending, clueless and hypocritical statement “seemingly innocent”? (“Dear Muslima” was ill-informed from a practical perspective alone: to solve big problems, one needs to get people to act together, and to have an organization which can effectively coordinate action, one must get internal affairs sorted. It was hypocritcal on top of that: why did Dawkins, for example, endorse Alan Sokal’s critique of ivory-tower silliness when schoolchildren are being indoctrinated with creationism, Big Tobacco is lying about cancer and the polar ice caps are melting?)

  9. says

    In-fighting is a sign that a movement is (a) disintegrating, as in rats on a sinking ship fighting over the last scraps of food, or (b) about to coalesce into a more mature institution, with a power struggle for places on the board. Let’s hope this points to the latter.

  10. says

    HAhahahaha – one of the haters on Twitter tweeted furiously that I think Shermer’s article is all about me.

    It has my name in the title! It’s a “response” to me!! This is one time when yes Virginia in fact it iS about me.

  11. Wowbagger, Antipodean Dervish says

    HAhahahaha – one of the haters on Twitter tweeted furiously that I think Shermer’s article is all about me.

    Awareness – self- or otherwise – is not their strong point is it? This, of course, makes sense according to my theory that this is all bitterness at atheist bloggers for not writing about the topics they want to hear about (i.e. religious-bashing only) since they are desperately in need of people to tell them what to think. Without it they’re lost.

  12. Rodney Nelson says

    now the inquisition has been turned on me…I still believe in the judicial principle of innocence until proven guilty

    Criticism is not the inquisition. People drawing conclusions on what another person says are not subject to legalistic rules.

    Shermer is playing the martyred victim, driven almost to despair because of an off-hand remark being held against him. But I will accept his self-described “comparatively modest brainpower” since he appear to lack any sense of introspection.

  13. says

    Blake: Why does Dawkins complain about religious politicians in the west when Imams and fundamentalists and the like are beheading nonbelievers in the Middle East? He ought to shut up about religion and realize how good he has it, since other people have it worse.

    That was the dumbest part of the whirlwind of dumb that was “Dear Muslima.” It wasn’t just hypocritical, it was a hypocritical, fallacious argument that Dawkins himself had debunked in other contexts.

  14. Sunil D'Monte says

    // As for why the sex ratio isn’t perfectly fifty-fifty, Hall noted: “I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.” //

    A suppressed premise in this argument is that these differences in male brains and female brains are hardwired i.e. they are innate. Science has actually NOT shown this. Here’s a good book that looks at the flaws in this research – “Brain Storm” by Rebecca Jordan-Young:

    http://www.amazon.com/Brain-Storm-Flaws-Science-Differences/dp/0674063511/. (Here’s a paper by her which covers some of the same ground: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12152-011-9134-4?LI=true.)

    One of Jordan-Young’s premises is that because the studies in brain organisation research are by necessity observational studies and not true experiments (you can’t ethically subject human beings to varying hormone treatments or control their development), it isn’t enough to just pick a few studies (as hardwiring proponents typically do). You need to do a synthesis of all the work done, and see if any conclusions can be made. So she did a synthesis of 400 of the most-cited studies in the field (and also interviewed 20-odd of the most cited scientists). And what she found was that the claims of hardwiring – e.g. the sex-typed interests that Shermer/Hall are claiming here – are not supported. And alternative explanations to observed differences are available. For example, one case of observed sex-typed interests is that of toy preferences in CAH-affected girls. But even given that, it’s hard to claim that it’s hormonally-induced hardwiring that’s causing it. CAH-affected girls live highly different lives – they typically have two or more surgeries at a very young age, and continual visits to doctors their whole lives. And everything revolves around their gender behaviour and their genitals – i.e. gender is continually made salient their whole lives, and everyone from the doctors to their own parents expects them to be masculine, to be “tomboys”. So an alternative explanation is readily available from the priming effects of this socialisation and interference. And the fact that CAH-affected girls are otherwise similar to non-CAH affected girls furthers puts the theory into question, because given the high levels of androgens they are exposed to, the dose-response prediction of the theory is not validated.

    Btw I work in software, and the argument Hall has made above is routinely trotted out to explain the lack of above is routinely trotted out to explain the lack of women in my field as well. Other than the reasons I’ve given above, there’s another reason this argument pisses me off – a majority of the men in my field are not interested in it either. The percentage of men who are interested in programming, who can code well, is really small. The others just sort of fell into the field because it’s a good career that pays well and has a high status. But no one questions this imbalance, no one is doing any research to study their hormone exposures to determine the hardwiring in their brains that is causing this. Instead, we latch on to gender difference only.

  15. says

    It always amazes me when whiners like Shermer start making comparisons with persecution by powerful state or church organizations: Nazi, Inquisition, Witch-hunt (McCarthy or otherwise), when confronted by criticism from someone who wields the awesome power of (duh, duh, Duuuuh) a blog and an occasional article.
    He’s such a self-promoter that anything which might sully his perfect shimmering Shermer-ness must be defended against at all costs, casting all rhetorical caution to the winds.

    At least atheist whiners don’t go for the Romans sending them to the lions analogy, we’re spared that, at least.

  16. Stacy says

    anything which might sully his perfect shimmering Shermer-ness must be defended against at all costs

    You deserve an internet for that, dsmccoy. A big pretty purple one with bows on.

  17. says

    Blake Stacey

    2. How, exactly, was Dawkins’ condescending, clueless and hypocritical statement “seemingly innocent”?

    It was objectively innocent in that it did not criticise Michael Shermer at all.
    Which is the touchstone for innocence or evil inquisition witch-hunter-feminazistasi.

    +++

    When these same self-described secular feminists went after Sam Harris for a commentary supporting racial profiling in the search for terrorists, again I didn’t speak out.

    Which really ays it all.
    A) Some of the folks who criticised Harris are indeed feminists. Not all were and not all feminists criticised him. Indeed, feminism didn’t feature much in the critique because it was more an issue of racism, but for Shermer that’s the enemy. Feminists. Probably it would be OK if it had been non-feminist men.
    Also, really?
    He’s upset about the fact that people dared to criticise Harris for him actually supporting the treatment of all people of somewhat middle-eastern or indeed Indian (because bigots really never can tell the difference anyway) descent as criminals?
    What level of hero-worship does he expect?
    How much not-criticised does he want himself and his friends to be?
    Or is it that the wrong kind of people dared to criticise them, people who are also feminists and/or women?

  18. Jeremy Shaffer says

    But perhaps I should have spoken out, because now the inquisition has been turned on me,…

    For me, this is the part of Shermer’s response where it went from trite condescension to all- out egotism. It’s like he seriously thinks that if only he had given Rebecca Watson a Ward Cleaver- esque talking to from the get go this whole snaffu would have blown over and we’d all be singing Daisy Bell now.

  19. jose says

    Would be great if you took the high road in your response. Let casual, uninvolved readers know how, concretely, the playing field is not leveled yet.

  20. says

    @Stacy –

    You deserve an internet for that, dsmccoy. A big pretty purple one with bows on.

    Why thank you.
    Purple’s a good color for my complexion too.

  21. says

    Oh, and sure sign of asshole privilege? Shermer seems to think ElevatorGate was all about Dawkins.

    Indeed. As I recall, ElevatorGate was already rolling by the time Dawkins made his “innocent” remark.
    One might even suggest that part of the reason why he got so strong a response was that he was sticking his hand into a beehive that had already been thoroughly kicked around.

    But then, having some ignorant buffoon joining the argument at the eleventh hour with no understanding of what has happened and proceeding to give a highly skewed, if not downright dishonest, portrayal of events, that’s pretty much par for the course.

  22. Gordon Willis says

    Could outraged vanity make itself any more apparent? (I said I was going to be more polite in the magazine. I didn’t say I would be more polite here.) The inquisition forsooth. This is self-importance at work: it can’t be that I simply criticised something he did actually say, no, because he is so important, therefore my audacity in criticising becomes an inquisition. And note “whose work has heretofore been important” – meaning, presumably, that it stopped being important when and because I lurched off the Path of Importance and inquisitioned him instead. And then note the nonsense about forcing him into defending himself, and the courtroom nonsense. Look on this example, oh ye mighty, and despair – or don’t despair, but do resolve never to let vanity get that kind of grip on you.

    Totally brilliant.

    I’m trying to do my tiny bit to prevent that kind. That’s not an evil thing to do. Shermer seems to think it is, but he’s wrong.

    Because it’s suddenly and quite unexpectedly horror of horrors Shermer who has got it wrong. NO NO AARGH!!!

  23. PatrickG says

    @ Gilliel:

    You forgot to quote the best part! OB has the audacity to say (of Harris, here):

    I don’t find him very interesting.

    I think I need a fainting couch after that vicious screed.

  24. randomdude says

    Re-reading both of Shermer’s articles, I can’t really understand him either. He explains what he meant much more clearly yet he still *has* to go on about persecution, inquisitions and so on. Would it really be so bad if he just provided the explanation and admitted the original statement was poorly-phrased, instead of making himself out to be a martyr who can phrase no wrong?

    Being familiar with some of Shermer’s good work, I am biased *positively* towards him and, as such, I didn’t even notice the statement in the video (being a guy also ‘helps’, I suppose). Someone brought it up and his response has been this so far, though?

    But I’m just repeating aforementioned sentiments…

  25. says

    Having checked your blog every day for a few years now, I realized today that I can’t remember the last time you wrote anything interesting and intelligent about atheism. Yes, Shermer is a third-rate thinker and a crap writer, but you aren’t: so it’s a shame that you got so lost. Bye-bye Ophelia.

  26. Wowbagger, Antipodean Dervish says

    Vijen wrote:

    Bye-bye Ophelia.

    I’m sure I speak for the majority of regulars here when I say this: door, ass – you know the drill.

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